King of Kowloon
pictures by Dominique Cheng
There once was a bronze statue— 8-feet high and heavy —from the Ming dynasty. Mr. Tsang Foo bought it, placed it in Five Dragon Hall. Near to it was the palatial villa, which contained pavilions, terraces, pools and the school with its library that stored Buddhist scripture.
Bright white and stately, Tsang Foo Villa stood against emerald hills. Each day was filled with clamor and children's laughter. Potted plants falling and crashing on tiles below. Visitors arriving Sundays were welcomed by a choir, a brass band, cups of tea pre-poured and sugared.
And yet the statue was prohibited from view. An exception was made June 5-6 of the lunar calendar, year of the dragon. The locals arrived in droves to see the biggest bronze statue in all of Hong Kong.
Tsang Foo—oil merchant and distributor, boss of Tsang Foo Foreign Coal Company, your great, great grandfather—built this, he said.
Before it was a ferry cruise terminal, it was Kai Tak airport. Before that, it was Po Kong Village and Tsang Foo Villa. And before that it was dirt roads and yellow Pui trees. Do not think they are unconnected. The past reaches forward and the present reaches back, like some alien tentacle emerging from a pond. Like a reed bending deeply to drink.
Wait till you get a load of this guy, he said. Thirty-fifth generation claimant to the Sau Mau Ping estates, for whom the whole of Hong Kong is a rightful inheritance. Once upon a time, Tsang Tsou Choi wrote these words upon the city, with a great, broad brush dripping black ink: "I am King of Kowloon." Following that, the names of his ancestral line, a veritable who's who of the Zhou dynasty. See, there? That's your grandfather's name, scratched on the side of a post-box, atop the insignia of Queen Elizabeth II.
Mr. Tsang sold through Sotheby's and showed at the Venice Biennale. But in the end, he died poor and hobbled in an old persons' home, clutching scrolls to his chest.
Imagine a city that's carved; cut through by an aluminum cylinder. That’s Kowloon, he said. Imagine the shortest runway in the world, a checkerboard laid over a mountain, a sharp right turn and a fast descent. And just imagine what that might look like from below! Many times a day, I glanced out my window to see an airplane passing overhead, like a great dragon. So close and roaring the apartment twisted on its foundations and the fillings in my mouth popped loose.
Five Dragon Hall and Tsang Foo Villa are destroyed. The walled city is dismantled. Kai Tak is retired. The checkerboard is overgrown. Tsang Tsou Choi's writings are covered or erased.
A glass city rises, without fingerprints.
Before the airfield is scrubbed clean, can we read, one last time, its history in little puffs of exhaust? Can you write a story with shadow across a building's face?
These memories linger then fade. They can be propped up carefully—scaffolded. It's macabre, but you can still dance with it, he said.
Dominique Cheng is an architect (by training) and illustrator/installation artist (by choice). His current illustration work stems from an incurable obsession with the world of cartography and aviation that began in 2007 with a project entitled Planespotting – a speculative project about the landing approach into the former Hong Kong International Airport. Recently, his work has been featured in The Site Magazine, Warehouse Journal, Testing Ground Journal, and Drawing Futures.